So my first book of the year is “A New England Tale or, Sketches of New England Character and Manners,” written in 1822 by Catharine Maria Sedgwick.
And I have to say, this book was pretty great. Great for me at least, or for anybody who has an appetite and tolerance for old-fashioned novels that are in the pre-Bronte/pre-Dickens period; a poor man’s Jane Austen, with extra points for a distinct American flavor.
The characters and structure of the story are fairly basic. The heroine is Jane Elton, who is orphaned at age 11 or 12 and goes to live with her late mother’s sister, Mrs. Wilson, an affluent widow with three children who is a religious hypocrite. Jane has an invaluable friend, her former maid, Mary Hull, who guides her towards her protector, the young Quaker widower Robert Lloyd. So there’s a Cinderella storyline for Jane with a relatively wicked stepmother, and in the background is a Mr. Knightley-type, and it’s obvious that the story is headed in the direction of marrying Robert Lloyd. But Jane has to survive and grow up first.
Jane is a model of perfect virtue. Since I’ve already written about the Core Philosophy of Doing Nothing, it’s worth mentioning that it’s an interesting exercise to look at what characters in literature do and don’t do. Jane is a bit of a young Buddha, never striving, always at peace and following the humble path of loving kindness and enlightenment, while all around her everybody is frenetic and busy with plans and schemes and getting in scrapes. There’s more than a little Clarissa Harlowe going on: a good (moral) defense can be the best offense.
The writing is precise about morals and motives, much like Richardson, and strong characters are the result. The story doesn’t have quite the same easy flow of an Austen novel, but then what does? But I haven’t read an “early novel” in what seems like a long time, and it was a lot of fun to enter such a carefully detailed world.
I’m curious recently to read about New England literary works beyond Hawthorne, Emerson, and Thoreau, and I picked up this used paperback (Oxford UP 1995, part of the Early American Woman Writers series) purely because of the title. I read “Country of the Pointed Firs” last spring and really enjoyed it, and read Megan Marshall’s outstanding biography “The Peabody Sisters” last fall/winter. This unlikely book could have been a chore and easily abandoned, but it moved along just briskly enough that I was won over. It helped that it isn’t especially long, about 170 pages, so the religious disputes never go on for very long. It has a fairly light touch, for this type of thing.
When I first studied American Lit, they always made a big deal about how Cooper was just copying Walter Scott, Irving began the process of capturing American life, and after Emerson sent out the call for original American literature, Hawthorne, Melville, Whitman and Twain wrestled native literature into being through their manly efforts. Or at least it went something like that. Obviously the revisions on that argument have been revised themselves over and over again. It was probably over a decade ago that Jane Smiley’s “Say it Ain’t So Huck” got me to read “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” which I’ve been keen on ever since.
At any rate, this book and the writing in it are pretty authentic American stuff, as far as I can tell. The structure is a basic early novel structure, but the book was apparently controversial because of its unsparing depiction of religious hypocrisy. Mrs. Wilson, her two daughters and her son are a bit over the top, and the characters aren’t exactly realistic. But the book was a very pleasing read, and it was a nice surprise to me that I enjoyed it so much.
But I’m a big literary softie, what can I say.